Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Our Difficult Telling—Issue 61, January 2016)

Emily Jungmin Yoon
Four Poems


How fitting the obelus

dotted the margins of ancient manuscripts,

marking spurious passages, then became the symbol

for division, one line balancing a circle above

and a circle beneath, two heads never to touch

each other. How our peninsula became one

obelus. How swift the sunderance

of families. How fitting that division

is military. In elementary school, we learned

division, its quotient and remainder, sang

about reunification, brought bags of rice

for our northern half, not knowing

the spurious passages they would travel,

that the white grains never touched the hands

we held in our paintings. How enduring the sunderance

of lovers. How the obelus gets its name from a spit,

a lance, how when my college boyfriend registered

to fulfill the compulsory military service,

his American friends joked about killing all the North

Koreans, beheading them, how when he laughed,

it was as though his shaved head was of

somebody else. How I thought about reunification again,

wanted the armistice to be over, to be brought

to swift justice for my sake.

Don’t Touch Me

Mackinlay Kantor’s 1951 novel is savagely outspoken! Air Force men in Japan and wives of men transferred to the front. Wives are greedy. Hungry for men. Sing-song girls perch in the exotic gardens of Kumbawa, the exotic backwash of the Korean War.


Konnichiwa, a street vendor tries me in a sing-song voice. What,  no ni hao this time? I would have said, if I were more outspoken. I could be Japanese. An exotic backwash.


Mackinlay, lend me your words. I could be a garden. Awaiting the Male. To whom the Male came seldom. Who sings with a thin voice, bits of lace that flash beneath the hems, wonderful female things. To whom the Male is the carrier-arounder, the thrower-arounder. Who is the receptacle. That goes back to the caves. Maybe past. Oh, I would smell of Asia. A Geisha-Schmeisha. I might be horizontal. Little things, pretty things, the gilt shelves of rare teacups, the inlaid coffee table with its carvings. A fresh new spice to taste. Touch and taste. Fruit and flowers. Spice and incense. Cloudy breath amid my draperies, emanating from my strange other-worldly body. I could be this. Greedy and hungry for men. Singing songs of my conquerors. Savage.


Kumbawa, syanata? Mac, they’re not even said right. Konnichiwa, on the other hand, is. Ah so desska, you say.


Man, you want to explore sex as practiced among the Japanese. I would smell of Asia. Spice and incense. You think, I should know the silky menace of your touch, the violence of your gasping effort, the shudder of fulfillment, the invocation growled in your throat when explosion wracks you. Without that, I am incomplete. You think that without you, I’d be incomplete. Conqueror. Carrier-arounder. Thrower-arounder.


Tell it to him straight, Mac: mingling your body with that of a Japanese woman, flesh against flesh, fluid touching fluid, you violate yourself. This race! Raw fish, polluted pickles. Toilers, gesticulating shopkeepers, pitiful elders, men and women knobbed and bony. Skimpy hair twisted to a horror. I would smell of Asia. Man, my race oozes from bamboo and other thatching. Goes back to the cave.


A man brings the needle to the thread, a woman brings the thread to the needle. Maybe there’s something phallic about that. Okay, Mac. If I were an exotic garden of needles, I’d let you touch me.


I’m being as honest as a woman can.


These poems were created with text taken largely from Comfort Women Speak: Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military edited by Sangmie Choi Schellstede (Holmes & Meier 2000), some text taken from True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women edited by Keith Howard (Cassell 1995) and Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson (Mid-Prairie Books 1999), and my own language. The words from the translated testimonies and editors› explanations were rearranged and edited to turn them into poems.

Hwang Keum-ju

a draft notice for girls, who was going to go? Everybody

crying. I went. I dressed nicely and went

trainwindows covered with tar paper

None of the girls knew

Japanese soldiers on horses  vast Manchurian field

It was now much too cold to sleep

thanks to our body warmth, the sun rose

I waited for them to send me to a factory

They could not possibly dump me here

I was called Haruko Nagaki

My long hair was still braided

An officer told me     that there were five orders to obey

If I missed any I would be less than dead

I hoped one of the orders was for me to work at a factory.

I looked at his jacket   hung inside out   to hide his name

I looked at my virgin’s braid   at his knife He told me

I was not going to any factory

told me to take off my clothes    I told him

I did not understand his order

and his kind of factoryand he laughed

Girls arrived  got sick    pregnant   injected

with so many drugsnameless animals

exploded on top of us

The day of liberationSuddenly,

no sound of horses the last    soldier

stood in the kitchen “Your country is liberated,

and my country is sitting on a fire.”

So I left the barracks

I walked

I was alone and walked all the way to the 38th parallel

American soldiers sprayed me with so much DDT

all the lice fell off me

It was December 2nd

I lost my uterus

I am now 73 years old.

Kim Soon-duk

there was “girl delivery” just like

farmers’ mandatory delivery

of harvested rice

to the government. I wanted to hide

but what if my mother was captured

in my place

My mother was needed at homeMother

Mother I decided to go

they promised a job as a military nurse in Japan

Mother a man gathered us near the county office

and took us to Pusan to Nagasaki

That night  the girl next to me went missing

each night they sent several virgin girls to military officers

a military officer came to me and said

every young girl experiences sex in her lifetime

that I might as well do it now

they took us they took us to Shanghaito a ruined village

my bodya ruined villagea damaged house

our manager gave me packets of black powder

to reduce my bleedingfrom the vagina

He then told me it was made

from a leg

of a Chinese soldier’s corpse

I dream of human legs rolling aroundI dream itto this day

I scream to wake myself up   Mother Izumi

he was kind to meI told him about my thoughts of suicide

He was surprisedso surprised

he sent me homesent me letters

I did not reply.I had my new life to live:

as a washerwoman, a street peddler and I did other things  too

but Mother, the hardest time was when I was dreaming of suicide

while soldiers were standing in line to satisfy their lust

in the ruined village

when I was dreaming of legs      that could not go anywhere.

Kim Yoon-shim

An automobile drove up the road, something I had never seen

before. The driver let me climb up  and the truck rolled on

then kept on going

and going and I begged them

to take me back but I was thrown

into a cargo traina cargo ship  Harbin

a comfort stationwhere three truckloads

of soldiers arrivedOne by one they raped all

night longwith filthy wordless bodies

my child’s body

they impregnated girls and still forced sex

When a child was born

a blue-uniformed woman put the body

in a sackand carried it away

soldiers used the “sack”saku

From these reused condoms girls got sick

When a girl got too sick

a guard wrapped her body

in a blanketand carried her away

Such was our life

look at my fingers

when I ran away the police smashed my hands

weaving a stiff pen between my fingers

like this.

Another year passed

like this.

In June 1945

when the camp seemed deserted

I escaped and ran all night

in a month I reached Korean shores

In Harbin, I saw at a stream a hand

of a sick girl

who had been buried alive.

In my dreams, she is still reaching

toward wider waters

my handswith their crooked fingers

cannot help her

Pak Kyung-soon

There was a man about 45 years of age with a mustache

        who told me  to work for Japan                 

and meet my brother            in Hiroshima

The man said            my refusal    might not be good for my parents

                    The man and his men took me to Shimonoseki

   I was led into a room       I was told to take a bath      I was told

        to take off my clothes

I only begged that I meet my brother

When they finally took me to                      Hiroshima, my brother was alone

                                in a big, empty room            he asked if I came

        as a “comfort woman”         and I promised

                                I would return

                    to see him again

when flower buds were about to appear

I was taken to Osaka           In its room

I was Number 10     I was then

a “comfort woman”

        I became so sick       with syphilis   I could not walk

One night an officer came and told me to get ready

I was in such great pain       the next thing I remember

is arriving in Seoul                It was June 1945

Immediately             I had a miscarriage

The mustached man learned of my return

told me to return to the “comfort station”

                    To avoid the draft again I got married

our new life              a rented room

I could smell the odor of my weekly           “#606”

        arsenic          for syphilis

My baby      discharged pus from his ears

        was called     crazy

My brother returned home          with burns and lumps

        all over his body      from radiation

        discharged disintegrated bone

        the size of teeth                   near his wounds

The Japanese soldiers                      discharged

        discharge      out of           charge           into  

                    every            room


My mother would straighten then wind the cord

of the hair dryer around its oblong trunk,

its mouth curving out to a flat triangle like a delta,

after it has done its duty of releasing streams of strong air

for our heads, then said, See? We have to keep neat

everywhere. At the age of six, when I started drying

my own hair, the dryer was heavy and unwieldy in my hands,

so often my head was patches of dry and wet,

but I would wrap the dryer with its cord carefully &

with precision, unlooping any bump to coil again,

admiring how the tight spiral with its consistent shine looked

indeed like perfect wet hair. It wasn’t until my early twenties

my hair started to curl on its own, and my mother said,

My world! Your hair is turning into your father’s! How peculiar is it

that when I wanted wavy hair as an adolescent, to be more

like the white girls I cherished, my hair was obstinately perpendicular

to the earth. How peculiar is it that these girls

would stroke my long dark hair and told it how so smooth &

lovely it is. Fetishization I welcomed for long.

Summer days and the popular girl saying I would kill

for your skin tone, my mother’s friends whispering to her

why did Jungmin tan so much like I have a reason

for being a color at some place & at some time

and there is a straight line between bad and goodness

on which I lay my unbeautiful body precariously.

Autumn morning. Leaves begin to split and crimp in the cold,

& holding the dryer, I still do this slow meandering.